By Romi Carrell Wittman –
Martha Furnas had been to the desert just once – Palm Springs, Calif. – and she knew it wasn’t for her. It was just way too hot and she left thinking she would never come back. But in 2002 she visited the desert again, this time the Sonoran Desert of Tucson, and she would eventually make it her home.
Furnas was part of an executive team scouting locations for GEICO’s next office, which was to be located in the Mountain time zone. There were several reasons the team selected Tucson over possibly more obvious choices like Phoenix.
“A great university is what tipped the scales in Tucson’s favor,” she said. A large talented workforce, affordable housing and a vibrant arts and culture scene didn’t hurt – not to mention the friendly vibe of the town.
“Tucson is a wonderful community and it’s the kindest group of people you’ll ever meet. That’s a really good thing for customer service.”
With the site secured, GEICO invited Furnas to run the new office and build it from the ground up. It was a formidable task, but she leapt at the opportunity. “I came by myself with my laptop,” she said.
She secured a facility – the 125,000-square-foot office at Speedway Boulevard and Kolb Road that formerly housed HealthNet – and began the process of throwing down roots, hiring staff and getting operations up and running. It was a huge endeavor, but she didn’t let the enormity of the task faze her.
“It takes a lot of support and stamina. You simply have to put one foot in front of the other and just forge ahead,” Furnas said.
That same mentality and positive outlook has governed much of her career.
When Furnas joined GEICO in 1981, she thought she’d stay for six months and save up some money so she could continue to pursue her degree in physical therapy.
Thirty-three years later, she is a regional VP and heads GEICO’s Tucson regional office – which serves Arizona, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Washington. Today the center employs more than 1,500 associates and is on track to hire some 300 more by year’s end.
“That’s the great thing about GEICO,” Furnas said. “We strongly believe in promoting from within. I could give you 20 examples of people with experiences similar to mine – 80 percent of our executive level management started out on the phones.”
Furnas, who was born in the Bronx and grew up in Connecticut, was a kid right out of high school looking for a way to pay the high rent of San Diego when she got the job.
“My older brother wanted to be a marine biologist like Jacques Cousteau,” she said. “He moved to San Diego to study at the University of California in San Diego and I followed him.”
She got a job as a courier for June’s Attorney Service delivering documents to various offices downtown. “This was back when San Diego’s downtown was very different than what it has become today. It was pretty gritty,” she said with a laugh. “Plus, I have the worst sense of direction in the world. It was not a good job fit.”
Her $100 paychecks didn’t cover her $275 rent and she knew she needed to find something that paid better. “Someone at the office told me to check out GEICO because they offered part-time work for college students. I thought I’d work there while I figured out how to be a full-time student,” she said.
Her first job was making outbound calls to people who had requested a rate quote for auto insurance. “This was before the Internet. People would mail in cards and we would call them back and close the sale.”
She quickly realized the opportunity that GEICO presented. “The quality of the company was becoming clear to me even though I was really young,” she said.
While working as an associate, she continued her studies and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business. She credits GEICO’s robust tuition reimbursement plan – one that’s still in place today – for helping her.
GEICO’s generous education policies can be attributed, at least in part, to Warren Buffett, who has stated that the best investment a person can make is the one they make in themselves. Buffett, of course, is the famed “Oracle of Omaha” and president of Berkshire Hathaway, which wholly owns GEICO.
GEICO – which stands for Government Employees Insurance Company – has more than 12 million policyholders and is second only to State Farm Insurance in nationwide market share.
“We’ve been the fastest growing auto insurance company for the last 10 years,” Furnas said. “When you’re growing quickly, hiring the most talented people and developing them into leadership is really important. It’s about staying ahead of the curve.”
In keeping with the culture of promoting from within, GEICO promoted Furnas several times and, in 2001, she was tapped to attend its executive assistant program in Chevy Chase, Md. After she graduated, GEICO offered her the opportunity to open the new Tucson office.
Paul Bonavia, the recently retired CEO of UniSource Energy, parent company of Tucson Electric Power, worked with Furnas on the United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona board. He said he was struck by her drive and determination.
“Martha is full of energy,” he said. “The thing that impresses you about her is her enthusiasm. She consistently demonstrates strong leadership skills and a real commitment to our community.”
Furnas says she’s amazed by her long, rewarding journey at GEICO and is proud of what GEICO offers. “We provide very stable, quality jobs to the community. Insurance is almost recession proof,” she said. “We promote from within. We want people to come and make a career with us.”
Founded in 1936, the nationwide GEICO has more than $28 billion in assets – and a sense of humor. In 2000 the firm introduced its very natty and charming spokes-lizard.
The GEICO gecko came to be because people tended to mispronounce GEICO as gecko.
When asked her leadership advice to the next generation, Furnas doesn’t hesitate.
“Attitude is everything. Develop yourself, learn and grow,” she said. “Demand the very best of yourself and of others. We’ll all have headwind in life – but you can overcome it by having a positive attitude and being authentic in everything you do.”